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Special Educational Needs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 10 March 2022

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Questions (64)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


64. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the steps she is taking to ensure the equitable distribution of special needs assistants, SNAs, across the school system with particular regard to new and developing schools; and the status of the roll-out of the front-loaded allocation model. [13481/22]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

Regardless of the announcement every year of additional SNAs in each budget, there just never seems to be enough. This is particularly concentrated in particular types of school. There is also the combination of the roll-out of the front-loading model and indeed the freeze on SNA allocation. What this means in particular is that fast-developing schools or new schools are finding it very hard. While 1,000 SNAs are announced every year, and I always welcome that, thousands of children across the State who need an SNA cannot access one. What can be done to ensure that every child who needs SNA support can access it?

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the new graduates of the SNA programme in UCD. This programme of training was advised by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, in 2018. Some 3,500 students will take that course over the next three years.

To get back to the Deputy’s specific question on SNAs in general, we have increased the number of SNAs by 81% since 2011. We can all agree that that is a significant increase on what was originally there. That is not to deny that schools will occasionally need additionality.

There is the process of exceptional review where a school requires an additional SNA.

The front-loading allocation model does not relate to special classes or schools, given they are outside of that. An SNA is allocated to a special class or school depending on the type of disability. In respect of mainstream classes, the front-loading allocation was frozen during Covid. We felt it would have been too great a burden on schools if we were to try to change that. The SNA allocations for existing and mainstream classes, including in new and developing schools, were maintained as of 30 April and were rolled over into the 2021-22 school year, and SNAs who are in position can remain so for the school year. Applications from developing and new schools were prioritised. The 1,165 SNAs who were allocated in budget 2022 will be allocated as a priority to developing and new schools. I accept the Deputy's point in that context. Nevertheless, a diagnosis is no longer needed to access an SNA in mainstream schools.

The Minister of State, too, has probably had these conversations with schools. Indeed, I recently saw her engage with the school in County Louth outside Leinster House. In schools that do not have enough SNAs, the SNAs are run from pillar to post, the children feel let down and their parents are frustrated that the children are not getting the supports they need. It harms the children’s development and their ability to thrive in school and to reach their full potential.

We have an issue with recruitment and retention. Every year, an allocation of 1,000 is announced but we never get there. In budget 2022, an allocation of 1,000 SNAs was announced, yet on budget day, 175 SNAs from the previous year's allocation still had not been allocated to schools. That is part of the problem. Some of it relates to their terms and conditions and how attractive the job is. People go into other jobs, they do not sign up to be an SNA and that is having an impact, even though the funding is available, on how many SNAs get into schools. Therefore, the children end up losing out. That is a big part of the problem and the Department needs to confront it.

Work is under way in respect of the new allocations for schools and they will issue as soon as possible. There will be consultation with stakeholders in advance. It is primarily the job of the NCSE to assess each school and its allocation. It is up to each school to allocate its SNAs as it sees fit. For mainstream classes, as I said, no diagnosis is required. The criteria for the front-loading allocation are clear. There is a baseline number of enrolments and account is taken of the number of children with complex needs, the gender of the children, whether it is a delivering equality of opportunity in schools , DEIS, school, and the educational attainment of the children. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I want every school to be adequately resourced with SNAs. The Deputy will be aware I have spoken previously about the school inclusion model and how that will benefit our children into the future.

Perhaps it is the NCSE that applies the criteria, but the buck stops with the Minister of State in terms of policy and the terms and conditions and pay of SNAs. They have a significant impact on whether we can get SNAs through the system, that is, whether we can recruit and keep them. She mentioned that in the case of new and developing schools, the allocation has been frozen, but that is precisely the problem. There is a degree of additionality but nothing near what is required. There are schools that are growing year on year which, at the start of Covid, may have had only two year groups and that have expanded well beyond that. The additionality they have been able to get is nowhere near enough. New schools that are growing fast are at the sharp end of this. They do not have anywhere near enough, in most instances. The Minister of State mentioned the course in UCD and there have always been issues with its accreditation. We need to start showing SNAs more respect if we want to keep them in the system in order that we will have the SNAs we need to support children.

I assure the Deputy that the Minister and I take the role of SNA very seriously. SNAs are valued greatly for the assistance they give to children with additional needs who, quite simply, would not be in a position to function in any real way in classes without them. The SNA's role to increase the independent living skills of children with additional needs is to be commended and admired. In regard to the course in UCD, as I have always said, we want to examine and evaluate the outcomes. The first step is to get training, which is what the National Council for Special Education recommended, and we can then consider accreditation and other matters in the future. We had to get the training done in the first instance. There will be conversations we can have in that context in the future. The front-loading allocation is a more objective and fairer way of allocating teaching care supports to schools, and it will help developing and new schools as well.